Originally created 02/22/98

Fort develops high-tech tools



Fort Gordon is an Army schoolhouse, where men and women new to the uniform come to learn a trade and become soldiers. Soldiers stationed there permanently are more likely to carry a laptop computer to work than a machine gun.

These are not the hard-charging, frontline infantry soldiers who are the first to deploy in a conflict. Fort Stewart, near Savannah, may send 3,000 troops to Kuwait for a possible showdown with Iraq. But mass deployments from Fort Gordon will be rare. Expect a few local troops from military intelligence units to depart quietly from Bush Field.

Fort Gordon's human contribution to the Iraqi showdown will be small, but its information impact is huge.

Virtually every piece of communications equipment warriors take to the gulf - every radio, every telephone system, every computer network - was developed, tested or improved by the Signal Corps, headquartered at Fort Gordon. The tracking and positioning systems that make today's bombs smarter than those used in the gulf war also owe their existence to the Signal Corps.

"All the communications equipment they're taking really is developed out of the Signal Center," said Col. W. Scott Rodakowski, director of combat developments at Fort Gordon.

"Fort Gordon is an Army weapon," Lt. Gen. Douglas Buchholz, the nation's top military communications and electronics leader, has said. "Without you, there is no information Army. We are now not only on the team but prized members on that team."

Since the gulf war, the signal equipment available to troops has evolved, making it much easier to maintain reliable and secure communications. The global positioning systems used for navigation and guidance of smart weapons are more sophisticated and more accurate than they were at the beginning of the decade. Regular office technology, such as the Internet and e-mail, is finding its way to the battlefield - linking commanders around the word and giving soldiers a quick way to communicate with home.

"We Signal Corps folks feel very confident really and should feel pretty good about the capability these guys will have when they deploy to Kuwait," Col. Rodakowski said.

Here are some examples of cutting-edge communications technology:

SINCGARS radio

During Operation Desert Storm, most ground troops used Vietnam-era VRC-12 radios to talk with other members of their brigade or battalion.

The old radios worked well enough - troops weren't isolated without radio communications - but they were prone to frequent failures and maintenance problems.

"It just took a lot to maintain them," Col Rodakowski said. "They were just not as reliable."

Since then, the Signal Corps has developed a new radio system call SINCGARS, short for Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System. One battalion took SINCGARS radios to the gulf war to test them, but now all units carry them.

The radios, which weigh close to 20 pounds and fit in a backpack, are the backbone of the combat network of infantry, armor and artillery units. The radios are usually installed in tanks, Humvees, military trucks and the unit's tactical operations center, but some are in portable backpacks.

Unlike the Vietnam-era radios, SINCGARS have embedded communications security equipment, ensuring voice and data transmissions are safe from enemy interception, Col. Rodakowski said.

"They're smaller, more user-friendly, more reliable," he said.

The Signal Corps is now working to make SINCGARS radios smaller, improve data transmission capability and equip them with a global positioning system interface.

The Army uses a similar radio, called the Enhanced Position Location Reporting System, for its data transmissions.

Similar to the SINCGARS in size and appearance, EPLRS radios allow deployed troops to send and receive data at near realtime speed. These radios help troops with positioning and navigation, identification of friendly forces and data reporting without fear of security breaches.

MSE

In many ways, the Signal Corps is the telephone company for the Army.

When ground troops are deployed, Signal soldiers go with them to set up a reliable communications network, with the same capabilities as any office.

The Army uses Mobile Subscriber Equipment, developed by the Signal Corps and civilian partners, to do this. Troops will take special trucks, equipped with antennas, satellites and switching systems throughout the desert to set up the MSE network.

Once everything is in place, commanders are wired to the world, able to talk via secure telephone with battle planners. The MSE network also permits computer and data transmissions, as easily as a home modem but much more secure. And it moves with the unit.

"It's a fairly sophisticated art putting it all together to ensure survivable, robust communications," Col. Rodakowski said.

GPS

During the gulf war, American troops used a global positioning system, a series of 24 satellites, for navigation. But GPS was still in its infancy then, and all 24 satellites were not available.

"Unfortunately at periods of the day, you'd lose it," said Col. Rodakowski, who spent six months in the Middle East. He relied on a compass and map to find his way in the desert.

Today, all 24 satellites are operational, providing troops round-the-clock access to the global positioning system. It is now a crucial tool for maneuvering forces in the air and on the ground, and it used by most smart-weapons systems to detect and home in on enemy targets, Col. Rodakowski said.

"The desert is a featureless environment," he said. "It's like being on the ocean. The GPS is extremely valuable."

Information warfare

Iraq also has access to GPS technology, making it a more dangerous enemy, the colonel said.

"Obviously because it's a very important capability, we would want to take it away from them," he said.

With armies relying on technology to plan and fight their battles, there's an emphasis on information or cyber-warfare, Col. Rodakowski said.

Information warfare used to mean jamming transmissions and listening in on secret radio and telephone conversations, but today's methods are more sophisticated.

The military has the expertise - and technical capability - to trick enemy computers with false information, take out crucial GPS satellites and implant destructive electronic viruses into the computers and communications equipment of our foes, Col. Rodakowski said.

"And we are going out of our way to make sure we protect our own networks," he said.

And that, once again, is the job of the Signal Corps.

Troop deployment

The U.S. military continues to increase its force in the Persian Gulf in anticipation of forceful action against Iraq.

So far, 20 soldiers from the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort Gordon have been deployed to the region in support of the operation against Iraq. Other Fort Gordon troops have been alerted for possible deployment, but none are scheduled to leave yet.